2017 has been a year of collapse for ISIS. At the beginning of the year, the group controlled vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Although anti-ISIS operations were in progress at that point, the group nevertheless continued to be a force on the battlefield. This all changed over the course of the past year.
In January 2017, ISIS controlled the cities of Mosul, Tal Afar, Hawija and al-Qaim, as well as much of the deserts straddling western Anbar and Nineveh in Iraq. In Syria, the group controlled the city of al-Bab, Palmyra, Mayadin, Raqqa, Albu Kamal and much of Deir ez-Zour, except for a small enclave of pro-government forces that endured a brutal siege. The group also controlled much of the countryside straddling the provinces of Aleppo, Raqqa, Hama, Homs and Deir ez-Zour.
The militants’ steady loss of territory began with the city of al-Bab, which was taken by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces backed by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in February. The FSA had already been capturing much of the borderlands with Aleppo over the latter half of 2016 as part of the Operation Euphrates Shield, capturing major towns such as Jarablus and Dabiq along the way.
In March, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) retook the city of Palmyra. The city, which had been taken by the SAA earlier in 2016 was lost to ISIS in late 2016 due to much of the government forces fighting the rebels in Aleppo City. From there, the SAA and its allied militias such as the National Defence Forces (NDF) embarked on an operation to clear the Homs and Hama countrysides from the militants while the main forces launched a two-pronged offensive to push into Deir ez-Zour and Raqqa.
The next defeat for ISIS occurred in Mosul. The eastern half of the city had already been mostly taken by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) by mid-January. However, the battle for West Mosul, particularly the Old City was particularly arduous. What has been described as the “most intense urban fighting since World War II” did not conclude until July, when the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced victory.
From there on, ISIS’ hold on Iraq and Syria unravelled rapidly. In August, the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) backed by the ISF took control of the city of Tal Afar. Expecting defences and will that matched what they witnessed in Mosul, the ISF was reportedly surprised at how quickly ISIS lines collapsed.
October was a catastrophic month for ISIS. The group’s de-facto capital and largest city, Raqqa, was finally captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after an intense battle that lasted months and rivalled Mosul in ferocity. Since the beginning of the year, the SDF had been gradually encircling the city, securing the neighbouring city of Tabqa and its dam in the process. ISIS’ end in Raqqa City spelled the end of the group in the province.
As the SDF battled to control Raqqa City, the ISF and SAA had been fighting their own battles. October also saw the liberation of the city of Hawija from ISIS militants, ending effective ISIS control on the wider Kirkuk Province. Meanwhile, the SAA captured the city of Mayadin in southern Deir ez-Zour. By this point, the government forces had already relieved the ISIS siege on the pro-government enclave, delivering vital humanitarian supplies into the city. Parts of Deir ez-Zour City remained under ISIS control and would so until November, when the entire city came under SAA control after being gradually surrounded.
November also saw the end of ISIS in the Iraqi bordertown of al-Qaim when the ISF and the PMU defeated the militants there. ISIS’ loss of its last major town would be followed by the loss of all their towns around Anbar, confining them to a small territory in the deserts. From al-Qaim, the ISF and the PMU supported the SAA in capturing the Syrian bordertown of Albu Kamal. With its capture, the militants in Syria were confined to an ever-diminishing land along the villages of the Euphrates and the deserts of Homs and Deir ez-Zour.
The militants still hold a few enclaves in Syria. The ISIS-affiliated Jaish Khalid Ibn al-Walid in Daraa’s Yarmouk Basin has so far eluded defeat. A small group of militants also remain besieged in the Yarmouk Camp of Damascus City. Moreover, ISIS militants fleeing the SAA in Hama have recently launched an attack on the territories of their former comrades, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham in northeast Hama and southern Idlib.
The military defeat of ISIS will not spell the end of the group. It remains capable of conducting raids and terrorist attacks. Containing and preventing damage of such attacks will be the primary security concern. Meanwhile, much of Iraq and Syria is in need of reconstruction and are suffering from a vacuum of governance that can allow ISIS militants to recover and make a comeback. The group also continues to be a threat in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Philippines.